Mountain Quest by Eva Allen--Part 6
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A voice was calling to her, tugging and pulling at her, a voice which would not go away.

"Xena, wake up. Come on now, it's time. Please wake up. Come on, Xena, open your eyes."

She was hearing the voice and also another sound, the sound of breathing that was ragged and labored--much like a death rattle. Someone must be very sick, she thought.

"Xena, you're scaring me. Come on, wake up. I know you can do it. Just open your eyes. You're not going to make me carry you down the mountain, are you? Please, Xena. I know you're in there. I can hear you breathing."

The voice was Gabrielle's. She recognized it now, and she could hear the fear in it. Gabrielle was afraid about something, but what? And why? In a place like this, where it was so peaceful and warm, why should anyone be afraid?

Then, gradually, she became aware of hands that touched her face and shoulder--Gabrielle's hands, she supposed. The touch felt nice. But then it went away, and the voice was gone, too. It was just as well, Xena thought. The voice had been disturbing her rest. She was just settling back into quiet nothingness, when she felt a sudden, sharp coldness on her face, and with a gasp, she opened her eyes.

"Thank the gods!" Gabrielle exclaimed softly, as she wiped the cold from Xena's cheek. "I thought maybe a little snow would get your attention."

The fog was even thicker than before, and at first Xena could see only the vague shape of her lover bending over her. Then, as reality slowly penetrated her brain, she began to remember where she was, and why. The fog lifted slightly and she became aware that she was lying curled on her side. The horrible breathing, she realized, was her own, and now she felt the full force of its discomfort.

"We have to get going soon," Gabrielle said, stroking Xena's hair. "We have to get you down the mountain to Elkton's house."

"In the . . . morning."

Gabrielle bent down to get her ear close to Xena's mouth. "What is it, Love?" she said. "Your voice is so weak that I can hardly hear you."

"We'll go . . . in the . . . morning," Xena said with great effort.

"In the morning, yes. But it's already morning. The sun's not up yet, so it's not very bright, but it's definitely morning."

"I was . . . sleeping."

Gabrielle bent close again to hear, and then kissed the warrior on the cheek. "No, Xena," she said softly. "You weren't just sleeping--you were unconscious. I was afraid I wasn't going to be able to wake you." She was silent for a few moments, her hand gently caressing Xena's face. "After I got your feet warmed up last night, I really didn't sleep much," she said. "I was too worried about you, I guess, and about keeping the fire going. I'd doze off, but then I'd wake up every few minutes and look to see if the sky was getting light yet."

Xena lay without moving, watching her lover's blurred shape, trying to make sense of the stream of words.

"I've already saddled Argo," Gabrielle continued, "and packed up as much gear as I could. Now I want you to sit up and eat breakfast and drink some more tea."

Xena understood that she needed to move, but she felt incapable of doing so. Her body was stiff and heavy and no longer like a living thing. Gabrielle reached down to her, pulling her up and then wrapping her arms around her, holding her close in a tender embrace. Xena let her head fall against the other woman's shoulder. "Gabrielle," she whispered, "I'm . . . so tired."

"I know, Sweetheart," Gabrielle said, hugging her closer, "But you can't give up now. You've got to be strong a little while longer and keep fighting the poison. You told me you'd try, remember?"

Xena nodded, but she had no idea how to be strong when she felt so very weak.

"Lean back against the rock," Gabrielle said, and Xena did so, looking around the campsite for the first time.

"There's so much . . . fog," she murmured.

Gabrielle, who had been pulling some food from one of the saddlebags, stopped and followed the other woman's gaze. "Xena, there's no fog at all," she said softly.

"There's not?"

"No, Love. I think it must be your brain that's foggy." She bent and kissed Xena on the top of her head. "Now," she said, "I've got some bread here for you and some cheese, and there's also fruit, if you want it." She tried to put a piece of bread in the warrior's left hand, but Xena pulled her hand away.

"No," she said.

"Xena, you have to eat something. You have to keep your strength up."

"I can't . . . eat."

"Sure you can! How about some cheese?"

Xena shook her head.

"Please, Xena. Just a few bites."

"No . . . I can't."

Gabrielle was silent for several moments, studying the other woman. Finally, she said, "Okay, but you have to drink some tea, at least."

Xena started to refuse, but Gabrielle was already holding the mug to her lips, so she took a sip.

"I really think the tea helped you last night," the bard said. "I was listening to your heart while I was lying awake, and it did sound stronger, for awhile anyway. And your breathing was a little easier, too."

Xena took another sip, choked and began to cough weakly.

"It's okay," Gabrielle said soothingly, rubbing the warrior's back. "Just take your time. Little tiny sips."

She held the mug up again and Xena sipped hesitantly. This time she managed to swallow successfully.

"Xena, is that why you don't want to eat? Are you afraid of choking?"

"Just . . . not hungry." She took another drink and began to cough again. When the coughing was over and she could catch her breath, she leaned her head back against the rock. Gabrielle once more offered the mug, but Xena turned her head away.

"No," she whispered. "I don't need . . . anything."

Gabrielle lowered the mug, then said softly, "Your body's shutting down, isn't it?"

Xena looked at her, then nodded.

The bard bit her lip and looked away, then said, "Okay, we've got to get going." She rose and quickly finished packing the bedding, threw a few handfuls of snow on the fire, and led Argo over to Xena. The mare stretched her head down to nuzzle the warrior's face and, reaching up, Xena stroked the velvety nose.

"Let's see if you can stand up," Gabrielle said, and crouched down beside the warrior. "Put your arm around my neck," she said, helping to guide it into place. Then she wrapped one arm around Xena's waist and together they staggered to their feet.

Xena's knees felt like water, and it was only Gabrielle's support that kept her from falling. "I can't . . . get up there," she said, looking at the impossibly tall horse.

"Is there some way to make Argo kneel down?"

"Yes, but . . . she only kneels . . . in front."

"Oh, so the saddle would be at an angle and it would be hard for you to get on."


Gabrielle considered for a moment. "There's got to be a way to do this," she said. "How about if you climbed on that rock? It slopes down in back, so if you went around behind it, you could climb up more easily from there. I'll help you."

It seemed like one of the most arduous things she had ever done, climbing onto that rock. But with lots of pulling and pushing and encouragement from Gabrielle, Xena finally managed to drag herself up the rock and crawl into the saddle. She clutched the saddlehorn with her left hand while Gabrielle helped put her feet in the stirrups.

"Here are the reins," the young woman said, holding them up for Xena.

"You'll have to . . . lead her," Xena said. "I need . . . to hold on."

"Okay," said Gabrielle uncertainly, "but I don't know the way down the mountain."

Xena cautiously released her hold on the saddle and reached under her cloak, fumbling until she found the folded parchment in her leathers. She handed it to Gabrielle.

"What's this?"

"Map," said Xena, taking ahold of the saddlehorn again.

Gabrielle unfolded the paper and studied it for a few minutes. "Who made this? Elkton?"

Xena nodded.

"And we're here, where it says 'treeline'?"

"Yes. The path . . . isn't hard . . . to follow."

"Okay, so we just go back to the trail and start heading down? And it will be pretty obvious where to go?"

Xena nodded again. It was already making her tired to sit on Argo with nothing to lean against. And they weren't even moving yet. How could she possibly stay on all the way down the mountain?

"How do I find Elkton's house?" Gabrielle asked.

"Before you get . . . to town," Xena said, stopping for breath. "Left side . . . big pine tree . . . barn."

"Left side of the road, with a barn, and there's a big pine tree in the yard?"


"Okay, let's get going then." She laid her hand on Xena's thigh and smiled up at the warrior. Xena tried to smile back, but wasn't sure how successful she had been. It was hard to know anything for sure at that moment, including whether or not she would still be alive by the time they reached the house with the pine tree in the yard.

Gabrielle led Argo slowly along the track, but the uneven terrain made for rough riding as the mare picked her way down over the rocks. Xena clung grimly to the saddlehorn, but her fragile strength was ebbing rapidly. It wasn't long before she felt her grip beginning to loosen, as her hold on consciousness did likewise. The fog drifted in and out of her mind and she slumped gradually forward.

"Xena! Look out! You're falling off!"

She jerked awake to find Gabrielle pushing at her, trying to keep her from sliding off the left side of the horse. With an effort, Xena pulled herself upright and sat gasping for air.

"Let's rest for a few minutes," Gabrielle said, and Xena nodded gratefully. A moment later, the bard reached up and laid her hand on Xena's arm.

The warrior looked down at her lover, at the green eyes full of fear.

"Xena, are you going to make it?" Gabrielle asked.

"I . . . don't know," she whispered. Then, after a moment, she said, "Tie me."


"Tie me."

"Tie you? What do you mean?"

"To the . . . saddle. Tie me."

"Oh. Yeah, that's a good idea," said Gabrielle slowly. She pondered the situation for a short time and then said, "Would it help if I sat up there with you? I could try to hold you on a little better."

"Yeah, but . . . there's no . . . room."

"Let me think for a minute," Gabrielle said, studying the load of furs tied on behind the saddle. "I'm sure I can figure something out."

Xena was just beginning to drift into the fog again when she was suddenly roused by a flurry of activity. Turning slightly in the saddle, she saw Gabrielle busily untying the furs and piling them on the ground.

"I guess we could stash these somewhere out of sight and come back to get them later," she said. "Surely Elkton would understand." There was a brief silence, then, "No, wait! I've got a better idea! Sit up, Xena."

The warrior hadn't realized she had slumped forward again until Gabrielle began pushing at her.

"Let me just get this rope around your waist," the bard said, making a couple of passes with the rope and tying it to the saddlehorn. Then she unrolled some of the furs and draped them across Argo's withers, in front of and behind the saddlehorn. The remaining furs she wrapped around the projection itself and tied them in place with the rest of the rope. "There," she said when she was finished. "Now if you fall forward, it won't be quite so uncomfortable, and there's room enough for me to sit behind you."

"Very . . . clever," said Xena with a weak smile.

Gabrielle smiled back and turned to Argo, stroking the mare's neck. "Sorry about the extra load, girl," she said. "But you understand, don't you?" A soft whicker was the answer. "Good," said Gabrielle, then she led the horse to a rock, climbed on it, and mounted. Putting one arm around Xena, she picked up the reins with the other hand. "Of course, I can't see where we're going," she said, leaning out to peer around the warrior. "But I don't think Argo needs much guidance anyway." Then she kicked the mare's flanks and they started on their way.

* * * * *

Xena was aware of very little after that. Sliding in and out of consciousness, she fell gradually forward until her head hung down over Argo's neck, her dark hair mingling with the cream of the mare's mane. The fog seemed to be drawing her a little deeper each time she entered it, drawing her onward, toward what, she did not know. But Gabrielle, meanwhile, kept up a constant stream of words which, like a lifeline, gave her something to hang onto and pulled her back into the world.

"Stay with me, Xena," Gabrielle pleaded. "Don't give up now. Be strong for just a little while longer. I know you can do it; you've always been so strong and brave. I can't let you go; I need you too much. And the world needs you, too. It's not your time to die. I can feel it, the same as I felt it before. I love you, Xena, and I don't want to lose you. Don't die. Please, don't die."

Struggling out of the fog at one point, Xena pushed herself partway up and looked back at Gabrielle. "Keep . . . talking," she panted. "I need . . . to hear . . . your voice."

The younger woman leaned forward to brush the hair back from Xena's face. "I'll keep talking just as long as you need me to," she said. "I'm not going to let you die. I told you that before and I mean it."

After that, there were only fragments--bits of light breaking through the gray curtain now and then, like mismatched pearls strung together by the sound of Gabrielle's voice. Time seemed to stand still, or at best, to repeat itself endlessly as Argo continued her slow, torturous journey down the mountain.

"Xena, can you hear me? Wake up! I need you to sit up for a minute." Gabrielle's hands were shaking her urgently, pulling her up, and reluctantly, Xena opened her eyes. "There's a man coming up the trail," Gabrielle said. "An older man, with short gray hair. Do you see him? Is it Elkton?"

Xena looked in the direction Gabrielle was pointing, but everything around seemed to be a sea of grayness. "Can't . . . see," she said. "Too much . . . fog."

"Fog? You said something about fog before. Is it getting worse?"

"Thicker . . . can't see . . . much."

Then, as if from a great distance, Xena heard a man's voice calling their names.

"He's calling to us! Can you hear him?" Gabrielle asked.

"Yes. It's . . . Elkton."

Gabrielle sat up straighter and began to wave. "Elkton!" she cried. "Elkton! Help us, please!"

A few moments later, he was standing at Argo's right side, breathing heavily from the exertion of climbing. Xena could see him now, although his features appeared oddly smudged.

"What happened?" he asked, looking first at the warrior and then at Gabrielle.

"Xena was bitten by the serpent, and she's been getting sicker ever since last night. Her heartbeat is weak and she can hardly breathe."

"Where is the bite?"

"It's here, on her arm," Gabrielle said, pulling Xena's cloak back. "Right above her elbow."

Elkton took her arm in his hands for a moment and studied the fang marks. "Your arm is paralyzed?" he asked, looking up at Xena.

She nodded.

"We thought the bite would just affect her arm, but--" Gabrielle broke off.

"I know," said Elkton, as he gently released Xena's arm. "That's what I told her would happen. It's all that was revealed in my vision. But the venom has spread into the rest of her body. It's slowly paralyzing her heart and lungs." He shook his head. "I knew that something had gone wrong, but I wasn't sure what. That's why I came up the trail to meet you." He looked at Xena again. "Did you kill the serpent?"

"Yes," she whispered. "I got . . . the leaves . . ." She closed her eyes as the mist swirled through her mind again, and only Gabrielle's arms kept her from falling.

"She strangled the serpent and fed me the leaves, and that broke the spell," Gabrielle said, finishing Xena's story.

"So you're all right now, Gabrielle? You have your memories back?" said Elkton.

"Yes, I'm fine, but we've got to help Xena. We can't let her die! Please, Elkton! Please tell me you know some way to save her!"

The urgency in Gabrielle's voice pulled Xena back into consciousness again, but she felt very little interest in Elkton's reply.

"I had another dream vision last night," he said, looking up at Gabrielle, "and in it there were two women. One of them was very sick and the other one healed her. Now I know that I was being shown the way to drive the poison out of Xena's body." Gabrielle gasped in relief, but Elkton held up his hand to stop her from speaking. "Unfortunately, Xena has already grown very weak. I just hope--" He stopped and looked away.

"You just hope what?"

He looked at the young woman again. "I just hope it's not too late," he finished sadly.

"No!" cried Gabrielle. "Don't say that! Xena is very strong! She's managed to stay alive all night and all the way down this mountain. Don't tell me it's too late!"

"I pray with all my heart that it's not," he said. "We'll do everything we can to save her, and we both know that if anyone can survive this, it's Xena." Then he laid a hand on the warrior's leg and looked up at her. "You must be strong for a little while longer," he said. "We will do everything we can for you."

Xena nodded.

He turned to Gabrielle. "I'll go ahead to get things ready," he said. "Come as quickly as you can."

"We will," the bard said. "How much farther is it?"

"Not too far--maybe half a league," he said and then hurried away.

Gabrielle picked up the reins. "Did you hear that, Xena? You're going to be all right," she said with a smile in her voice. "You just have to hang on a little bit longer. I knew Elkton could help us. I just knew somehow that he could."

Xena tried to listen, but her own labored breathing was soon the only sound she could hear. Feeling totally exhausted in body and spirit, she slowly slumped forward once more over the fur-wrapped saddlehorn, and all sensation vanished.

* * * * *

She came to again when she felt hands pushing at her, shaking and lifting her.

"I'll hold her while you untie the rope," she heard Gabrielle say, then she opened her eyes to see Elkton fumbling with the knots at her waist.

"Are you awake?" Gabrielle asked softly as Xena leaned back against her.

"Uh-huh," the warrior mumbled.

"We made it. We're at Elkton's house. You're going to be all right now."

Then they were pulling her down off of Argo and, one on either side, they half carried, half dragged her into the house.

"Over there, on that pallet in front of the fire," Elkton said, and they lowered her onto it. "Keep her sitting up for a minute, if you can," he added.

"Okay," said Gabrielle. Then, quickly taking off her cloak, she knelt beside Xena and put a supporting arm around her shoulders.

Moving to the fireplace, Elkton peered into a small pot that hung over the embers. He stirred the contents for a moment, then poured the steaming red liquid into a wooden bowl, which he set on the floor beside the pallet. After that, he crouched down in front of Xena and put a hand on her shoulder. "This potion will help strengthen you," he said, "so you need to drink it all. Do you understand?"

"Yes," Xena said.

"She's been having a lot of trouble drinking things without choking," Gabrielle said.

Elkton regarded the warrior for a moment, and his nearness made it easy for her to see the lines of worry on his face, the deep compassion in his eyes. "Just do the best you can," he said, "but it would help if you could drink it all. I'm hoping it will give you enough strength to get through this."

"Through what, Elkton?" asked Gabrielle. "How are you going to get the poison out of her system?"

Elkton rose and stood looking at the bard. "I'm not going to do it," he said quietly. "You are."

"I am?" she asked in surprise, staring up at him. "But I don't know how to do anything like that!"

"You'll be able to do this . . . if anyone can," he said with a quiet smile. "I'll explain everything in a minute. For right now, have Xena drink the potion, then get all her clothes off and have her lie down. You can cover her with that sheepskin," he said, pointing to the cover that lay folded nearby. "I'll go unsaddle your horse and put her in the barn. Call me as soon as you're ready."

It seemed to Xena that it would take her forever to drink all of the potion. She took small sips, but still had to stop frequently to cough. The red liquid started to affect her almost immediately, though, creating a warm, tingly sensation that spread rapidly through her body. In a short time, the fog began to clear from her mind and it seemed easier to breathe. "This is . . . good stuff," she said to Gabrielle.

"Is it helping?"

"Yeah. I feel . . . a little stronger. Not like . . . passing out . . . all the time."

"Good," Gabrielle said. She set the bowl aside, unfastened Xena's cloak, and took it off of her. Then she gently brushed back the hair from the warrior's forehead. "You're starting to perspire. You must be warming up."

"It's . . . the potion. It feels . . . warm inside."

"There's just a little bit left," Gabrielle said, picking up the bowl again. "Can you finish it?"

Xena nodded. When she was done, Gabrielle unlaced her leathers and helped her slip out of them and her undergarment. Then the warrior stretched out on her back on the pallet and closed her eyes. It felt so very good to lie down.

"Xena," Gabrielle said as she spread the sheepskin over her, "I don't know what's going to be involved in getting you well, but whatever it is, I'll do it. I'm not going to let you die."

"I know," Xena whispered. She opened her eyes and gazed into the intense green of Gabrielle's. Reaching out, she squeezed the younger woman's hand. She really did feel better. Not good, but a little better, anyway. Maybe she would survive after all. "Go get . . . Elkton," she said.

Gabrielle went away and returned a couple of minutes later with the Mystic. Sitting down cross-legged on the floor next to Xena, the bard took the warrior's hand in both of hers. Elkton carried a small stool over and set it near Xena's feet.

"I'd sit on the floor if I thought these old bones could tolerate it," he said with a small grin as he seated himself. "But I know for a fact that they won't." He looked at Gabrielle for a moment and then at Xena. "How are you doing?" he asked the warrior in a gentle voice.


"Yes," he said, nodding. "Your breathing sounds a little less labored and you look more alert. I mixed the potion as strong as I dared. I'm glad it's helping you."

"What do we do now?" asked Gabrielle.

"Now comes the hard part," he responded. He leaned forward with his elbows on his knees and fixed his gaze on Gabrielle. "There is only one way to drive the poison out of Xena's body," he said, "and that is with love. That's why this ritual--or whatever you want to call it--has to be done by someone who loves her very deeply."

"I love Xena with all my heart," Gabrielle said, squeezing the warrior's hand tightly, "and I'll do anything to save her, including giving up my own life."

"Well, I don't think it will come to that, anyway," Elkton said with a sad smile. Then he fell silent for a few moments, gazing down at his hands. Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances and waited for him to continue.

"This is a little hard for me to talk about," he said finally, and shifted uncomfortably. Then he looked up again and took a deep breath. "As I told you earlier, I saw two women in my vision," he said. "One was very sick, and the other was healing her. I thought these two women must represent the two of you, but I didn't know for sure which one was sick."

"How did the one woman heal the other?" asked Gabrielle.

"Ah. That's the strange part. She did it by--" Elkton hesitated and colored slightly. "She did it by making love to the other woman."

"By making love?" Gabrielle asked in surprise, glancing first at Xena and then turning a puzzled gaze on the Mystic.

"Yes. And after I found out that Xena had been bitten, I understood what needed to be done. Gabrielle, you must make love to Xena. You must make her feel your love all the way through her body, so that the venom will be pushed out. She needs to feel--" he stopped, apparently embarrassed, and looked from Gabrielle to Xena. "She needs to feel the full . . . pleasure . . . of love," he finished, almost in a whisper. "Do you understand what I mean?"

"Yes, I think so," Gabrielle said uncertainly, "but--" She looked at Xena and the warrior could see the fear in her eyes. "She's so sick," Gabrielle said, turning back to Elkton. "I don't know if I can-- If she can--"

"That's why I said it might be too late," Elkton said gently. "But this is the only way I know of to counteract the effects of the venom." He paused for a moment, and then went on. "I'll give you the rest of the instructions and then I'll leave you two to talk about it. If you decide it's not possible to do this now, with the poison so advanced, then I will understand." He turned to look at Xena, his eyes full of compassion. "We will make you as comfortable as possible," he said, his voice edged with emotion, "and we'll be here with you . . . when you cross over."

Xena smiled softly. "You're a . . . good friend . . . Elkton," she said.

For several moments after that, the room was silent, except for the crackling of the fire and the sound of Xena's ragged breathing. Then Elkton stirred and turned to Gabrielle again. "When the venom leaves her body," he said quietly, "it will come out through the skin, like sweat. You must wipe it off with these rags and then throw the rags into the fire. All of the venom must be burned."

Gabrielle nodded.Xena felt her lover's hands trembling and saw her eyes go to the large pile of rags near the fireplace.

"Some of the venom will return to the place on Xena's arm where it first entered her body," Elkton went on. "When enough of it has collected there, you can cut her arm and let it drain out. I've put a knife here for you, and a wooden basin. Pour the venom into the fire, and when you're finished, burn the basin. Do you understand?"

"Yes," Gabrielle whispered.

"I'll be right outside the door there. If you have any questions or need my help in any way, just call me." He was silent for a moment, then added. "I will pray to the gods, and ask them to help you--both of you."

"Just make sure Ares isn't involved in any way," Gabrielle said, looking at Elkton with a cynical smile.

The Mystic smiled back. "There will be no supplications to Ares," he said. "Except that he stay well out of this!"

"Elkton," Xena said then, and waited for him to turn toward her. "Thank you for . . . helping me . . . get Gabrielle back." She stopped to catch her breath. "That was the most . . . important thing. . . no matter what else . . . happens."

Elkton pressed his lips together and looked at her sadly. "Xena, I hope this story will have a happy ending, but if not--" His voice broke and he stopped to take a deep breath. "I just want to tell you how much I admire you for your courage and strength. It's an honor to know that you consider me a friend."

She nodded and tried to smile.

He rose stiffly from his stool and stood looking down at them for a moment. "The gods be with you," he said, then laid his hand on Gabrielle's head and added, "Remember to call me if you need anything."

"Thanks, Elkton, I will," Gabrielle said.

After that, he crossed the room with a heavy step and went out the door.


* * * * *

Xena lay watching Gabrielle, who sat motionless, staring at nothing, still holding the warrior's hand pressed between her own. The bard's face revealed much of the uncertainty and fear she was apparently feeling, but there was a determined set to her jaw that Xena knew well. After a few moments, Gabrielle lifted Xena's hand and laid her cheek against it, then kissed it. "Well," she said, raising her eyes to meet the warrior's, "we've never made love on command before."

"No," said Xena softly. "Gabrielle, I don't know if--"

"We're going to do this, Xena," the young woman interrupted. "We have to get the venom out of your system, and if this is what it takes, then we'll do it."

"Gabrielle, if this . . . doesn't work . . . I don't want you . . . to blame yourself."

"I won't. I promise."

"I just don't feel very . . . sexual . . . right now."

Gabrielle reached out to caress Xena's cheek. "I know, Sweetheart, but we've got to try, anyway," she said. "We can't give up. I can't bear to lose you; I love you too much. Please say you'll try."

"I'll try," Xena whispered, and squeezed Gabrielle's hand.

"Good. Then we'll do it. I'm just afraid that--"

"That what?"

"That if we really do it, it will be too much for your heart, and you'll--" She stopped.

"If that happens," Xena said with a weak grin, "then I'll die . . . a happy woman."

Gabrielle smiled a sad smile and stretched out on her stomach beside Xena. Propping herself on her elbows, she gently brushed the hair back from Xena's face and gazed into her eyes for several long moments. "I love you so much," she whispered, then leaned down to kiss the warrior's forehead, eyelids, and cheeks.

Gabrielle's lips felt warm and tender, and Xena reached up to pull her lover closer. But when she closed her eyes and tried to savor the sweetness of the kisses, she saw only the image of Gabrielle's face, etched with fear and grief. Then the bard's mouth gently covered her own, the tongue slipping in between her teeth. It was the kind of kiss Xena usually loved, but now, suddenly, her only thought was that her source of air had been cut off. Panicking, she pulled away abruptly, turning her head to the side. "I can't breathe!" she gasped.

"Oh, Xena, I'm so sorry!" Gabrielle said quickly, laying her hand on the warrior's cheek. "I don't know what I was thinking. Are you all right?"

"Yeah, I'm-- I just need--" She closed her eyes in a effort to get her breathing back under control. But fear seemed to have gained a stranglehold on her throat, and for several moments it was difficult to force air in and out.

"I'm sorry," Gabrielle said again, and Xena felt her lover's soft caresses on her forehead and cheeks. She opened her eyes to see the bard watching her intently, and she smiled, hoping to relieve some of the worry she saw on Gabrielle's face.

"I'm . . . better now," she murmured.

"Good," said Gabrielle, lightly touching the tip of Xena's nose. "Okay, we'll start over again, and this time we'll leave out the kissing on the mouth part. But don't worry," she added with a grin, "I have many skills."

Xena smiled weakly and laid a finger on Gabrielle's lips. The younger woman put her hand over Xena's, drew the finger into her mouth and sucked it for a moment. Then, reaching down, she pulled the sheepskin back to uncover the warrior's breasts and abdomen. Xena closed her eyes again as she felt Gabrielle's hand on her breast, the fingers circling and teasing the nipple. Her flesh responded, the nipple hardening and tightening, but she felt none of the excitement that usually accompanied this act.

Gabrielle's tongue was caressing her now, warm and soft, the lips closing around her nipple, pulling and sucking it. Xena opened her eyes and stared up at the thatched roof, willing herself to feel the pleasure of arousal, but she could not. Instead, the cold hand of fear tightened inside of her. She had not been afraid to die until this minute, but now she realized that she feared dying like this, unable to respond to Gabrielle's best efforts to save her. And, more than that, she feared the heavy burden of guilt she knew her lover would place upon herself.

Xena felt Gabrielle's hand move down over her abdomen and then slide between her legs. Refocusing her thoughts, she tried to put her fears aside and think only of the pleasure she knew Gabrielle could give her. But try as she might, she could feel no pleasure. Instead, she felt only the panic as it started rising within her again. Her life depended on having an orgasm now, and yet she had never felt so far from having one. The rasp of her breathing sounded loud in her ears, and each breath now began to feel as if it might be her last. Wisps of fog reappeared, floating across her field of vision, and she could no longer feel Gabrielle touching her. With a sudden cry of frustration, she pushed the bard's hand away.

"Xena, what is it?" Gabrielle asked in a frightened voice. "Did I hurt you? You're trembling all over."

"I'm sorry," Xena managed to choke out. "I just can't . . . do this. It's not . . . working. I . . . can't feel . . . anything."

"Can't feel anything? Do you mean you feel numb?"

"No . . . not numb." She stared at Gabrielle, not knowing how to explain the terror that seemed about to strangle her.

"You just can't feel . . . pleasure? Is that it?"

She nodded.

Gabrielle looked away, staring at the fire, pressing the back of her hand hard against her mouth. But after a few moments, she turned to Xena again. "I think the reason this isn't working is that we're both too scared," she said. "I'm scared of losing you, and you're scared of-- Well, I'm not sure what you're scared of, but I can feel the fear and tension in your body." She leaned down and gently touched Xena's face. "What is it, Sweetheart? Are you afraid of dying?"

"No, not of . . . dying."

"What then?"

Xena hesitated. "I'm afraid you . . . will blame yourself . . . if I die," she said softly.

Gabrielle didn't answer, and Xena turned her eyes away for a moment, not wanting to see the anguish in her lover's eyes. Then, biting her lip, she looked back again. "Just . . . let me go, Gabrielle," she pleaded. "Please. I'm not . . . in pain. It's not . . . such a bad way . . . to die." She saw a tear slide down Gabrielle's cheek and reached out to brush it away. "It's . . . not your fault," she went on, still struggling for breath. "The venom is . . . too strong. I . . . can't fight anymore. . . . I'm too tired." Another tear fell, but still her lover didn't speak. "Just . . . stay with me," Xena finished. "Hold me. It won't be . . . very long."

With a muffled sob, Gabrielle laid her head on the warrior's chest and wrapped an arm around her. Xena gently stroked the red-gold hair, feeling the wetness of Gabrielle's tears on her skin. For a time, neither of them spoke, but then Xena said, "I love you . . . Gabrielle. I don't want to . . . leave you. You're . . . my family . . . my best friend . . . my lover . . ." She stopped as she felt her own tears starting, trickling silently out of the corners of her eyes.

Gabrielle raised her head and looked at Xena. Her face was still wet from crying, but there was a calmness in her eyes which hadn't been there before. "You're right, Xena," she said quietly. "I have to let you go." She swallowed hard. "It's just so hard to do," she ended in a whisper. Reaching out, she smoothed the hair back from the warrior's face. "You're crying, too, aren't you?" she asked.


With gentle fingers, she wiped away the tears, and then touched her lips briefly to Xena's. "There's something I want to do before you cross over," she said softly. "I want to make love to you."


"Shh," she said quickly, stopping Xena's protest. "I want to make love to you, and I don't want it to be because I have to, but because I want to. Because I want to touch you one last time. It's kind of a selfish thing, I guess. But it's also a gift I want to give you. I want you to die knowing how much I love you, and feeling it with your body. I want you to-- Well, remember how you said you'd die a happy woman if you died while we were making love?"

Xena nodded.

"I want to give you that happiness . . . if there's any way I can. Please, Xena. Let me do this for you. Let me give you this one last gift."

Xena stared at her. Was Gabrielle trying to trick her into another attempt to get rid of the venom? Or was this really what she said it was--a final gift to her dying lover? Xena knew she was past being able to respond in any way at this point, but if it comforted Gabrielle to touch her again, then what could be the harm?

"All right," Xena said quietly.

"Really? You're sure? You'll let me do this for you?"


"Thank you," Gabrielle breathed and then she smiled softly. Taking Xena's hand, she held it against her chest for a moment. "Now," she said, "I want you to close your eyes and try to relax. You don't have to fight anymore. All your battles are over." Her voice started to break, and she stopped to take a few deep breaths.

Xena lay looking at her, unwilling to close her eyes and lose what might be her last sight of the face she loved so much.

Gabrielle's eyes met hers and held for several moments. "Close your eyes, Love," she said finally. "I need you to relax. I'll be right here beside you, talking to you and touching you. You won't be alone. And my love will always be with you . . . even on the other side." She reached out and laid her hand over Xena's eyes. "Close your eyes now and let go. Stop fighting. Let your body relax."

The warrior sighed softly as she felt the tension slowly begin to drain from her muscles. Gabrielle's hand gently smoothed her brow and caressed her cheek.

"There's nothing to be afraid of now," said the bard. "I'm going to let you go so you can cross over, and I promise not to blame myself. It's not my fault or yours that this happened. We just have to accept it and let go. We'll be together again someday. I know we will."

As Gabrielle went on talking, a sense of calmness and peace crept into the warrior's soul. The fear gradually slipped away and her breathing eased up a bit. She began to feel as if she were floating, suspended in some quiet place where nothing really mattered anymore.

"I'm going to start touching you now," Gabrielle said, "and if it's uncomfortable or you want me to stop for any reason, just say so, and I will. Can you feel this?"

"Mmm-hmm," Xena murmured, as she felt Gabrielle's hand once more on her breast, followed by the warm lips that pulled and sucked at her nipple.

"Does that feel all right?" Gabrielle asked.

"Nice," whispered Xena.

"Good. Now just try to focus on that feeling. Just think about how nice it feels and about how much I love you.I'm putting all my love into every single touch. Just relax and let yourself feel it."

Once again Gabrielle's lips and tongue were on her breast, gentle, yet insistent. And, to her surprise, Xena felt the first faint stirrings of desire, felt her nipples becoming erect and hard. Then, after a few minutes, the bard's hand moved down between Xena's legs, her fingers slipping in among the sensitve folds of skin.

"Let yourself feel my love, Xena," Gabrielle whispered. "I've never loved anyone the way I love you. Just let your body feel that. Feel my love for you."

And Xena did feel it. Blocking out thoughts of how difficult it was to breathe, she managed to focus on the tenderness of her lover's touch. After a time, she found that her weakened body was responding in a way she had not thought possible. Pleasurable sensations began moving through her, radiating in gentle waves. She heard a low moan and realized that it had come from her own lips.

"Xena? Is everything all right?" Gabrielle asked softly. "Do you want me to stop?"

"No, don't . . . stop," Xena whispered.

"Okay. Just checking," Gabrielle said. She moved down and Xena felt a series of soft kisses on the inside of her thighs. Then the sweet pleasure once more, a gentle stroking which she thought must be Gabrielle's tongue. She moaned again as the sensation grew, like a bud slowly opening in the sunlight, petal by petal, until it finally filled her completely. Her body began to move in weak spasms and she cried out hoarsely. Surely, she thought, no one ever had a more beautiful death.

"Yes! Xena, we did it!" she heard Gabrielle exclaim. And then after a moment she added, "The venom is starting to come out! I can see it! It's really weird-looking! It's kind of yellowish-green! Xena, take a look at this stuff!"

But the warrior could not look, could not even move. Those were the last words she heard as the fog whirled in around her, no longer gray but greenish now, and incredibly thick. Blotting out everything, it choked off her breathing, effectively smothering her. She tried to resist but could not. Her strength was gone and the fog was much too powerful. It pulled at her, drawing her out of her body, and in the moment she finally surrendered to it, she felt suddenly and marvelously free . . . free of pain and fear, and free of a body that no longer remembered how to move and breathe.

She let the fog lift and carry her, knowing at last what her destination was to be. In the distance, a light appeared, and she felt herself borne swiftly and inevitably towards it. The light marked the bank of the River Styx. She knew this now, knew that the light would guide her across in Charon's boat.

With a feeling of peace and deep relief, she allowed the fog to sweep her onward, closer and closer to the light. She was almost there, had almost reached the river's bank, when suddenly a figure loomed in the mist ahead of her. It was a spirit figure, just as she herself now was, but she recognized it immediately. "Ares," she said, coming to a reluctant halt. "I thought I was done with you."

His laughter swirled around her like the fog. "You'll never be done with me, Xena," he said. "You ought to know that by now."

She glared at him without answering.

"You thought you could defeat me," he went on, "but you were wrong."

"I did defeat you. I got Gabrielle back, didn't I?"

"Yes, but look at the price you've paid. You're dying, Xena, or hadn't you noticed? You're on your way to Tartarus, and you will never see your little friend again." He moved closer to her, and she felt the chill of his essence.

"Since when do you decide who goes to Tartarus?" she demanded. "I thought that was Hades' job."

"Oh, it is, but I know how these things work. You think that a few good deeds will atone for a lifetime of evil, but you're wrong, Xena. The balance swings too far the other way. I'm afraid it's Tartarus for you, my dear, and isn't that a shame?"

He smiled a cynical smile, and Xena did not answer.

"But it's not too late, you know," he said then. "I can still save you, give you back your life. You have only to say the word. And since you're going to end up in Tartarus anyway, why not have a little fun before you go?" His figure remained before her, but his spirit, warm and seductive now, seemed to surround and caress her. "Come back to me, Xena, and we'll conquer the world together," he murmured. "You know you want to. This is your chance."

"No, Ares, you're wrong," she said. "Maybe I once wanted to conquer the world, but not anymore. Not now, not ever! I would much rather die than go back to you. I don't need you to save me. Gabrielle's love is all I need. And even if I spend the rest of eternity in Tartarus, I'll still feel that love. I'll carry it within me forever." She moved forward, determined to force her way past him. "Get away from me now," she said, "and let me cross over."

But in that moment, she heard a voice, faintly, as if it came from a long ways off, and she stopped to listen. It was Gabrielle's voice, calling to her, "Xena, I love you! Don't leave me! Come back! Please come back to me, Xena!"

Come back? Was it possible to come back? But even as the question flashed upon her mind, she saw Ares begin to recede and disappear into the mist. The light, likewise, grew gradually less bright, fading away as she now travelled back through the fog, back towards Gabrielle.

Faster and faster she seemed to move, pulled by her lover's voice, feeling the first gentle touches of the bard's fingers on her skin. Then, all at once, she felt the full power of Gabrielle's hands and mouth, creating pleasure where she thought all sensation had died. The feeling grew stronger, and still stronger, swelling from her center to encompass her completely, making her whole body moan and writhe. And when it was over, the fog began to lift, fading meanwhile from green to gray and finally to the peaceful white of nothingness.

 Continue to Part 7 (conclusion)

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